MIAMI — You might have thought the Knicks would go viral for some amazing highlight from Wednesday night’s blowout win over the Nets — a Jalen Brunson three-pointer, a Julius Randle pass or even Josh Hart diving over the seats in the front row for a loose ball with the game already decided.
But the enduring image was a five-second video clip when Brunson exited in the final minutes with 39 points. He said something as he passed Tom Thibodeau and got the often-sullen coach to fist-bump him and even provide a hint of a smile.
When it was mentioned to Thibodeau that the camera had caught a smile, he said, “You going to believe me or believe your eyes?”
Brunson was asked, too, and said, “I said some words that made him smile.” Asked if it was about his performance, he quickly corrected that notion. “No, he don’t care about that,” said Brunson, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month on Thursday. “He cares about wins. That’s it. Wins and how we can get better. That’s all he cares about. That’s all I care about.’’
There is a lot about the Knicks that is hard to believe right now. But it’s hard not to smile — even for a coach who called for a challenge on a block/charge call against Brunson with 4:59 left and the Knicks up by 26 (he won the challenge) — when the Knicks are playing the way they are now.
They have won seven straight and nine of 10, have moved within 1 1⁄2 games of fourth-place Cleveland and are feeling confident and happy as they head out for road tests against Miami on Friday and Boston on Sunday.
“It’s a real fun game because everybody is involved,” RJ Barrett said after Wednesday’s 142- 118 win over the Nets, a game in which they scored 47 points in the first quarter and shot 20-for-35 from three-point range. “You could point to everybody and say, ‘All right, they had a great game tonight.’ That’s something that’s rare and try to just keep replicating that.
“We’re winning. What’s better than that? Everyone always says they want to be part of a winning team and stuff, and that’s kind of what it looks like. Just a bunch of good players. You don’t know whose night it’s going to be on any given night. But we always play hard, and no matter what, we all cheer for each other.”
The thing about this team is that numbers such as the 39 points from Brunson may be impressive, but just as impressive is that he is second in the NBA in charges drawn with 24. In the NBA’s hustle stats, the Knicks are among the leaders in the sort of things that make Thibodeau happy.
In total box-outs, Mitchell Robinson is first (143) and Isaiah Hartenstein No. 2 (142). In box-outs per 36 minutes, Hartenstein is first and Jericho Sims second. In three-pointers contested, Brunson is second with 217 (behind Evan Mobley’s 225) and Randle ranks eighth with 185. In total loose balls recovered, Hart is fourth with 54 and Randle fifth with 51.
Thibodeau is certain to refocus on the things that matter as the Knicks head down the stretch.
“You want to improve every day and we talk about that at the beginning of the season,” he said. “This is why we work the way we do. This is why we study. This is why we study film. This is why we come in and put extra work in. This is why we practice, and then you want to keep improving.
“There’s always things you can do better. So I still think we have a long way to go. I like where we are in the season in terms of we know the intensity is getting different now. So we have to respond accordingly. And this should bring the best out in us.”